Blending dance and sculpture creates a fresh view of art

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Blending dance and sculpture creates a fresh view of art
Brendan Fernandes "Returning to Before" at the Barnes Foundation, William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision. 2023. Photos Daniel Jackson for Embassy: Interactive.

by Precious Adesina

NEW YORK, NY.- Chicago artist Brendan Fernandes doesn’t need his work to fit neatly into one category. “People ask, ‘Is it a prop? Is it a sculpture? Is it an artwork?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s all those things,’” he said recently by phone.

He has now focused his long-standing interest in merging dance and sculpture on the work of William Edmondson, an early 20th century artist. Fernandes created a piece that is featured in a retrospective of Edmondson’s practice, “A Monumental Vision,” running through Sept. 10 at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

With its presentation of Fernandes’ work, the Barnes joins a number of artists and institutions worldwide that are combining the mediums of dance and sculpture to question how people interact with museums and visual art. The show’s curators, James Claiborne and Nancy Ireson, hope that Fernandes’ dance piece, made in response to Edmondson’s stone carvings, will “encourage new ways of seeing,” Ireson said. The work, “Returning to Before,” will be an ongoing live performance in the museum.

Claiborne recalled hearing Fernandes give a talk at Rutgers University in 2022 in which he discussed the point at which “objects become fine art, and at what point they can be touched.”

Claiborne added that this incited his interest in how “museums often disconnect artworks and objects of spiritual and cultural significance from their original context” and helped him conceive of the Barnes project.

Fernandes said “Returning to Before” is “an hourlong piece, but there are moments where the dancers become statues.” They stop to think or rest, but also to mimic the positions of Edmonson’s sculptures. “They are meditating,” he added. “They are creating this space of peacefulness within the museum.”

“Museums are choreographed spaces,” Fernandes said, adding that choreography is “a set of rules” people follow. At the Whitney Museum in 2019, he exhibited Master and Form II, a sculptural work of black scaffolding made into a steel cage. In performances demanding significant physical endurance, ballet dancers hung off, balanced on and leaped over parts of the structure.

“You go to a museum, you don’t touch things, you don’t talk,” he said. In works like Master and Form II, he was “playing with those etiquettes and transforming them,” he said.

Much as Fernandes’ work interacts with Edmondson’s sculptures at the Barnes, Carrie Mae Weems has used dance to bring new meaning to long-standing visual work. In her 2013 video piece “Holocaust Memorial,” the U.S. artist moves reverently between the pillars of the Berlin monument, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, clapping and swaying her arms.

There has been much discussion about how visitors interact with the memorial, which opened in 2005, including criticism of people for taking selfies or posing for other pictures among, or even on, the grid of pillars.

Weems’ movement between the memorial’s objects, also caught on camera, aimed to highlight the “shared sense of struggle” between Black and Jewish communities, according to a quote from the artist in a current retrospective of her work at the Barbican Center in London. At an exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany, last year, Weems displayed still images from the Holocaust Memorial series for the first time.

Preceding these works, Nick Cave, another U.S. artist, has spent much of his career bringing dance and sculpture together. Since 1991, Cave has made more than 500 “soundsuits”— vibrant, wearable sculptures — that have been displayed at museums around the world. Cave has long thought about how different museums separate artworks from their initial purpose, he said.

The soundsuits have also been worn in numerous dance pieces in art spaces, with the performers’ movement in the suits producing the “sound.” For Cave, the idea of sculptures in museums “lends itself to interpretation,” he said. “A sculpture is something that you encounter in its full form from all sides. We move around a sculpture, we come in and out of a sculpture. In my case, one can be the wearer, or one can imagine the sculpture in a performative context.”

Much like the Barnes Foundation collaboration between Fernandes’ dance and Edmondson’s sculpture, museums and galleries are looking for “fresh ways to stay relevant,” Ireson said.

Movement puts people in “a contemplative space,” Claiborne said, which can open up new ways of engaging with visual art.

He added, “Dance becomes a way that still objects take on new lives.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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